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War Without End Brings Endless Dangers

by Nikki R. Keddie on Feb 21, 2002

The policy of President Bush and his administration appears to be War without end. Sometimes hot, sometimes cold, the war is projected against many enemies, including both states and organizations, all termed “evil” and said to pose threats to the United States.

Unlike our Cold War enemies, these “enemies” are not a group, nor do they pose a current threat to the United States, but are suddenly targeted for long-term problems that the world has been dealing with for decades — alleged ties to terrorism or to weapons of mass destruction.

Bush apparently hopes that a war posture can assure support for expanding the U.S. military, for arbitrary judicial processes, for cutting domestic spending and for continuing the Republicans’ popularity. This warlike posture, however, increases the danger of expanded hot wars, diverts our focus from terrorist groups that do threaten U.S. targets, starves needed domestic programs while endorsing dubious military ones, alienates our allies and discourages the diplomatic efforts and foreign aid needed to solve complex international problems.

During the Cold War, “mutually assured destruction” restrained both major powers from taking aggressive steps. But the United States can now choose to go to war against one or more relatively weak countries without risking destruction. Still, warlike measures against Iran, Iraq or North Korea will likely unite their populations against us. Nothing like a repeat of the Afghanistan war can be anticipated with them. The wars we fought in Korea in the 1950s and Vietnam in the 1960s, which brought on far more military action against us than we anticipated, inflicted large U.S. losses and denied us victory, should serve as a warning.

Efforts to tie states we dislike to the al-Qaida network have failed. Targeting states said to harbor terrorists is far trickier than it appears, since many terrorists are surreptitious and many states where terrorists live, including the United States, Germany and Britain, do not want them. The question of which states are threatened for harboring terrorists seems purely arbitrary. For example, “friends” such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, from which the al-Qaida Twin Towers terrorists came, are exempt from threats or hostile acts by the United States.

In Bush’s Jan. 29 State of the Union speech and since, several groups have been targeted beyond our post-Sept. 11 focus on groups, still present in many countries, that have taken or threatened action against the United States. The newly targeted groups include, first, those that use terror not against the United States but against Israel. Bush also targets those states that harbor or help such groups.

Second, we are targeting states we believe are working on weapons of mass destruction. This is the bizarre “axis of evil,” Iraq, Iran and North Korea, states that are either hostile to, or have no connection to, one another. This is a major departure in U.S. policy. While we expressed alarm at the actual spread of nuclear weapons to China, India and Pakistan, though not at their spread to Israel, this did not lead us to threaten or undertake war. Recent history suggests it is impossible to limit such weapons to a few favored countries in the absence of effective treaties and policies aimed ultimately at eliminating them in all countries.

The administration’s creation of an alleged threat to the United States is calculated to put the country on a war footing for a long and indefinite future. Designating many states and organizations as threats accomplishes several goals for the president: It justifies ballooning military measures, including an antimissile shield, which many see as both impractical and as encouraging a new and ever more deadly global arms race.

It encourages the continued expansion of governmental powers at the expense of privacy, fair judicial procedures and freedom from unreasonable arrests and harassment.

It improves electoral prospects for George Bush and the Republicans, who are seen as more competent to carry out war policies.

Its high costs require elimination of, or cutbacks in, many vitally needed domestic programs, as can be seen in the current Bush budget. Bush’s threats to many other countries, instead of using diplomacy, have already alienated allies in the West and in non-Western countries. 

By substituting ultimatums for negotiation, these threats have already played into the hands of hard-liners in Iran. It is now more difficult for Iranian reformers, who make up a great majority of the electorate, to work effectively to better relations with the United States and to open up their society. The policy of military threats assumes that the worst assertions about Iran’s encouraging terrorism are true, while many informed observers doubt that the Iranian government was responsible for the recent arms shipment to Palestine.

When faced with a dubious and partisan “endless enemies” view of the world, Democrats, Independents and even Republicans should see the endless dangers it poses and should speak and act more effectively than they have against both the domestic and the foreign and military components of this dangerous program. This will require far greater courage than has been shown in Congress to challenge the administration’s statements, including its call for aggressive policies and grossly inflated military spending.

Nikki R. Keddie is a professor emerita of Middle Eastern and Iranian history at UCLA. She is author of "Iran and the Muslim World: Resistance and Revolution" and is a writer for the History News Service.